Gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach is determined to address the fiscal quagmire facing the state’s education budget, but he doesn’t think spending more money is the way forward.
Kobach and his newly announced running mate, Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman, stopped in Garden City on Thursday and outlined campaign promises to local residents at Stevens Park as part of a statewide tour that began in Topeka and has already included stops in Kansas City, Pittsburg, Wichita, Hutchinson, Great Bend and Dodge City.
Kobach, appearing with his wife and five daughters, shared the results of a poll orchestrated by his campaign that put him ahead in the Republican race by 13 points over sitting governor Jeff Colyer. Kobach said his poll put him at 31 percent, Colyer at 18 percent, Jim Barnett at 10 percent, and Ken Selzer at 4 percent.
“That’s good news for us,” Kobach said. “It shows that our message is resonating with Republican primary voters.”
As for his gubernatorial bid, he says Kansas is in a “mess” after last year’s $1.2 billion hike to income taxes “on the heels of our largest sales tax hike in 2015, in state history.”
“Spending continues to increase for no good reason in my opinion,” Kobach said, adding that he is “very intent” on rolling the tax hikes back and shrinking agencies across the state through natural attrition of employees and unspecified executive orders.
“If you think the status quo is great and you really don’t want much to change in Kansas, I would definitely not be your candidate,” he said. “But if you would like things to be shaken up in Topeka, then I think I’m your man.”
Some local legislators think Kobach would represent more of the same. At Saturday’s Legislative Coffee event at St. Catherine Hospital, Sen. John Doll, a Garden City independent who recently announced himself as Greg Orman’s running mate, said Kobach is “Brownback on steroids,” in reference to previously elected governor Sam Brownback, whose tax cuts landed the state in a fiscal hole.
When asked how he would keep the Kansas Supreme Court satisfied with school funding, something legislators have struggled to do since the Supreme Court once again ruled K-12 funding unconstitutional in October, Kobach criticized calls for more funding without offering a solution to concretely address the court’s concerns about inadequate funding.
Kobach criticized a recent study commissioned by conservative members of the state Senate that shocked legislators by calling for between $1.2 billion and $1.8 billion to achieve adequate school funding for improved student outcomes and graduate rates. The same study called for an additional $450 million just to preserve existing outcomes.
“I think the recent study that just came out is flawed,” Kobach said, noting that the conclusion reached by the study’s researcher, Texas A&M University professor Lori Taylor, was suspiciously similar to a conclusion she reached in a similar study for Texas. Taylor’s research focuses on school finance, and she has worked as a consultant on funding issues for multiple states.
“I just don’t think it took into account the specifics of the Kansas educational system enough, and I also think the premises of the study without going into great detail were problematic,” Kobach said.
He explained that school funding has put too much emphasis on the dollar amount, which has never been specified by the courts, and not enough on where the money is being spent.
He also noted that when he graduated from high school in Topeka, his school facilities were subpar with classrooms in doublewide trailers, gravel parking lots and 10-year-old "tattered" textbooks.
“But you know what? I still got a good education, good enough to get into Harvard,” Kobach said. “You don’t need to have fancy buildings and tons of administrators. We have been spending so much money on administrators of buildings and not enough money on the classroom, and by the classroom I mean the teachers’ salaries and the actual items that the students are using to learn.”
Kobach called for reducing excessively staffed school administrations and putting strict state requirements on how taxpayer dollars are used in K-12 education. He said governors have been too passive in their directives for legislative action, adding that he would take a more hands-on role in developing solutions for the Legislature.
Finally, he criticized the legal grounds of the argument given by the Kansas Supreme Court, which cites the state constitution's call for "suitable" education funding in its directive to lawmakers to create a formula that is "adequate" and "equitable" for all K-12 students in the state.
“I think the Kansas Supreme Court hasn’t presented an adequate legal argument that more spending will generate better legal outcomes,” Kobach said.
However, he added, paying teachers more and spending money more wisely “might” have an effect on outcomes.
“There’s no question there will be continued litigation no matter what we do, and there will be continued litigation no matter how much money the Legislature spends, because it will never be enough to some interest groups on the outside — by the way, interest groups are supported by school administrators getting the money under the current scheme,” he said.
Kobach added that he hopes his solution would satisfy the courts, but if not, “then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Hartman noted generally that there will have to be a way to create more revenues for the state, “some way, some place,” he said, “and it’s not going to be easy to do because there is no money to be had other than from you.”
Jean Clifford, a USD 457 school board member and a candidate for the District 5 state school board seat who listened to Kobach Thursday in Stevens Park, said that the issue is more complex than Kobach might realize.
“I think education is going to take more money, and I think it’s going to take more personnel, including teachers and possibly administrators,” Clifford said. “We just really need to recover from what’s happened to education in the last few years. We’ve declined, and we need to get back to where we were and to further and make prospects for our students even better than they have been.”
She said she was glad to gain a better understanding of Kobach and Hartman's position, “but I’m not sure I agree entirely with their approach."
Contact Mark Minton at email@example.com.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported where Jim Barnett stood in a recent poll conducted by the Kobach campaign. Barnett sat at 10 percent.